About the book: Alison Bechdel’s father Bruce was a high school English teacher, a funeral home operator, and a man who worked tirelessly to restore his Victorian-era home to its original glory. He was a husband and father of three children. On the outside, the Bechdels were a functional nuclear family.
However, soon after Bechdel came out to her parents, she learned her father was also gay and that he had sexual relationships with his students. Months after her announcement, her mother filed for divorce – and two weeks after that, her father got run over by a truck. Was it an accident? Was it suicide?
Bechdel thinks it was the latter, and in Fun Home, she analyzes her memories, books, and family letters in an attempt to understand who Bruce was and why he chose a life that dissatisfied him so deeply. What I liked: Bechdel’s analysis of her and her father’s lives, and her ability to wed it to distinct visuals, was inventive and involving. I remember one page in particular where she mapped out the places where her father was born, lived, and died, and circumscribed the area within one tidy circle to reveal that all of these important things happened within one mile’s distance of each other.
The narrative loops back and forth upon itself, and parcels out new information at a measured pace, showing the readers new facets of the same story as it progresses. I appreciated Bechdel’s depth of focus in both her writing and her visuals – nearly everything is in its right place. I admire how much effort went into writing and drawing something so emotionally painful, and how much more effort went into making it all look seamless. Summary: Alison Bechdel grew up with a father who was alternatingly distant and angry, an English teacher and director of the local funeral home (or “Fun Home”, as Alison and her siblings called it).
Their relationship grew more and more complex until Alison was in college. Shortly after Alison had come out to her parents, she learned that her father was also gay… but before she had more than a brief chance to process that news, he was dead. Whether the accident that killed him had been truly an accident or a suicide, Alison would never know, just one of the many mysteries left by her father for Alison to slowly and painfully unravel here. Review:
The “look at my terrible childhood” flavor of memoir is my least favorite flavor, and is responsible for me thinking I didn’t like memoirs in general until relatively recently. I’ll happily grant Fun Home an exception, however, even though it technically does fall into that category. There are several reasons that it sets itself apart from the rest of its peers, but I think the primary reason is that Bechdel is not using her the trauma of childhood for laughs (although there are some humorous touches throughout) or for dramatic potential (although there’s certainly plenty of that as well).
Instead, there’s a very palpable sense that she’s writing this memoir because she’s really trying to figure out her relationship with her father, and what it meant, and that putting her memories down on paper is the best way she can hope to make sense of it all. The narrative flow does jump backwards and forwards through time, repeating some parts of the story from different angles as they come to bear on different topics, giving it a feeling of “thinking out loud,” but even so, it doesn’t come across as feeling scattered or unpolished.
It also helps that her analysis, both of her father and of herself, is extremely penetrating, with enough emotion to make it powerful but enough age and maturity to make it thoughtful. Bechdel’s prose is similarly both elevated and immediate, verbose and vocabulary-ridden, but still clear and forceful. The book is rife with literary allusions and direct textual comparisons, some of which I got, some of which surely went over my head, but which certainly set the intellectual tone of the book.
Bechdel’s art is also great, and I really liked the juxtaposition of her own detailed drawings with the drawn reproduction of photographs, printed text, and her own diary entries. Overall, this was a very thoughtful and penetrating book. I’m sure that there are layers of meaning about homosexuality and the process of coming out that I, as a straight person, didn’t latch on to. But I think there’s also a message that’s applicable to everyone, about the secrets that our parents keep, and about who they really are, and how we, as children of our parents, can manifest those secrets without ever truly understanding them. out of 5 stars.
Summary The entire story is present from the first few pages, in the antique decadence that contrasts peculiarly against father Bruce’s strict, volatile perimeters; his cut-off jean shorts; his nose stuck in The Nude by Kenneth Clark; and in Alison’s tomboyish supplication as a child for his affection, channeled instead into the house’s restoration, a House of Usher in reverse. “It was his passion. And I do mean passion. Libidinal. Manic. Martyred,” writes Bechdel, showing Bruce carrying a porch column bent over his back, wearing only shorts that would make the Village People blush.
After Alison types and mails a letter from college telling her parents she is gay, her mother informs her that Bruce, a high school English teacher and part-time funeral home director, had been with men throughout their marriage. The first had been a farmhand at 14; one was even her babysitter, Roy. “I had imagined my confession as an emancipation from my parents, but instead I was pulled back into their orbit… Why had I told them? I hadn’t even had sex with anyone yet. Conversely, my father had been having sex with men for years and not telling anyone. Four months later, Bruce died in puzzling (read: suicidal) conditions. Alison impulsively links his death to her sexual revelation — “the end of his life coincided with the beginning of my truth. ” Bechdel traces the fear of this correlation back and forth in time through bizarre, coded interactions with her parents. Watching her narrate cyclonically around this traumatic core — “a sort of inverted Oedipal complex,” the assertion of her “erotic truth” destroying her repressed father’s life — is a devastating, bittersweet head-trip.
It is the reading equivalent of a photo mosaic: hundreds of tiny images of Alison forming an inescapably dominating image of Bruce. Fun Home also pulls off a portrait of how the invisible histories and private lives of parents impress unwittingly upon children emotionally and psychologically. Plenty of books attempt that, but fewer pull it off without connect-the-dots associations or posturing, fewer still with Fun House’s effortless juggling of past, present and future.